If you shop on Amazon, reviews are everything.
Even if you don't realize it, customer reviews influence how you shop on Amazon. When you search on the site, products with higher star ratings are displayed at the top of the page. Products with lower ratings get pushed to the bottom of the page or to later pages, where they will likely not even be seen or considered by the average shopper. On Amazon, reviews are everything, especially the aggregate number of stars a product gets from all of its reviews.
Without even realizing it, your eye catches sight of that line of golden stars. The closer it is to full, the more of a swell of confidence you feel for that product.
At least, that's how Amazon designed it. And most people follow their lead.
According to a 2015 Nielsen study, 66% of people trust online product reviews to help them make wise buying decisions.
But are Amazon reviews really worthy of your trust? When you get those search results on Amazon, are they showing the products that are actually the best quality? Or have companies and individuals figured out how to game Amazon's reviews for their own gain-and your disappointment?
Here are five reasons you shouldn't put blind trust in Amazon's reviews:
To anyone who follows Amazon news, this should be no surprise. The company admitted as much when they announced a lawsuit last year against 1,000 individuals for allegedly selling 4- and 5-star reviews. They have promised to do the same to other parties who do the same thing. The lawsuit was considered a bold move, but a much-needed one. After all, if companies can just buy good reviews, then it renders their whole review system untrustworthy to shoppers.
And then there are other companies who try to get around this obstacle by sending products to consumers for free or at deep discounts. To these companies, Amazon states:
"If you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact."
Unfortunately, there is evidence that the companies who orchestrate these programs will also kick participants out of their groups and throw away their reviews if those reviews aren't 3 stars or greater.
What good is a review from someone who has never used the product they're reviewing? One of the biggest complaints from Amazon sellers is that reviewers don't have to have actually used the product.
True, Amazon now offers the 'verified purchase' feature on reviews, but they also don't stop those from reviewing who don't have the 'verified purchase' tag. After all, how could they? How could Amazon prove that you bought National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation at Walmart 10 years ago, for example? They couldn't really, and this leaves their hands tied.
So Amazon chooses to keep reviews open to anyone who has an Amazon account. The upside: people who can't verify their purchase but might have experience with the product can post reviews. The downside: it opens up Amazon reviews to any Internet troll who just wants to ruin someone's day.
Fortunately, online tools, like Fakespot, are being created to help shoppers weed out the fake reviews from the real ones. By dropping the URL of a given Amazon product onto Fakespot's home page, shoppers can find out how many of the reviews for the product are trustworthy and how many are likely fake.
[screenshot for Fakespot]
If you get enough reviews, the logic goes, you should end up with a fair score of any given product. But what if a given product only has two or three reviews? In this scenario, one bad review can send a product to the bottom of the heap.
"Due to a lack of broad participation, many online items have very few customer reviews," says Eric T. Anderson at Fortune. "For these items, a single five-star review can have a tremendous impact on consumer decisions."
The typical social pressure of the Internet keeps reviews from strictly accurate and factual. The human need to be funny and liked and popular and approved of takes over, and, instead of seeing reviews as a chance to help other shoppers, too many see it as their chance to get laughs or just rant at the world.
Perhaps the most infamous example of this phenomenon was the Amazon reviews for Haribo Sugar Free Gummy Bears 5LB Bag. While certainly entertaining-they might just be the most entertaining customer-generated content of all time-the reviews became so over-the-top as to be useless to shoppers.
And then there are the reviewers who spend more time ranting about an author's gender, race, and political views than on the actual merits of the book they're reviewing. This phenomenon creeps into not just book reviews, but reviews for movies, electronics, and makeup.
And finally there is that review behavior that can only be explained by how reviewers want to be viewed by their peers.
"Some of an apparel company's best customers may write negative reviews about products that they have never purchased," says Anderson. "While it's unclear why, one reason is that these customers are trying to influence both what other customers buy and the types of products the company sells."
Paul Carr at TechCrunch recalls one book review that awarded only one star to a certain book on Amazon:
"I'd like to add my name to the list of people who are very disappointed that this book does not have a Kindle edition. No, I haven't read the book, but I want to - on my Kindle! If all these one star reviews lead to fewer sales, I think that would be a great result and an excellent lesson for the author/publisher."
What's wrong with this review? For one, it tells you nothing about the book itself. Second, it gives a low rating (which is supposed to be a measurement of the quality of the book) because of the way the book was delivered (which has nothing to do with the quality of the book).
"A book's overall star rating is one of the most prominent pieces of information on an Amazon page and many readers-quite reasonably-equate a low average rating with a poorly written book," says Carr. "Almost nobody-unless they click through and read the full text of the negative reviews-sees a one-star rating and assumes it's a comment on the decision by the publisher to withhold an electronic edition."
Clearly, Amazon reviews are still a long way away from being the reliable measures of quality that shoppers can rely on to make smart purchasing decisions that Amazon intends them to be. Surely, this problem is on Amazon's radar. In the meantime, however, shoppers will have to be smart about how they use these reviews, learning how to spot and sift out fakes, over-exaggeraters, and reviewers who are just plain missing the point.
To see how actual customers rate Amazon, read our Amazon reviews page.